Rockaby/Berceuse and Footfalls
Rosemary Pountney in Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby/Berceuse

Samuel Beckett – Rockaby/Berceuse and Footfalls
Performed by Rosemary Pountney
22 March 2012, Den Nationale Scene, Bergen

Samuel Beckett in Bergen

Randi Koppen

The double- (or triple-) bill of Rockaby/Berceuse and Footfalls performed by Rosemary Pountney on a rare visit to Bergen in March this year, exhibited all the signature features of a late Beckett performance: the precariousness of sight and sound, the uncertainties of origin and issue, the compulsive loops and repeats. And yet there was something new to the experience, produced in part by the particular sequence of texts performed, in part by Rosemary Pountney’s unique corporeal presence on stage. Curiously, the experience of performances in sequence seemed to reverse the ‘evolution into absence’ so often invoked to describe the movement traced by Beckett’s plays. In the first half, the lonely, drawn-out act of dying is enacted twice, first in English, then in a hypnotic French. Next, in the death- or dream-space that opens up, a ghost walks, first as a column of dusty light, then as a body whose corporeal presence comes more and more to insist: an enduring fact demanding the performer’s as well as the spectator’s attention.

The signs of aging and death are with us from the beginning, visually inscribed on the body, much less a feature of voice. In Rockaby the woman in the chair appears with a face like a death mask, shrivelled hands framed by black, sunken breasts just about visible: not so much prematurely old, as the stage directions specify, as simply old. As the woman sinks down into words and darkness, then strains forward for more, the voice coming out of the dark, indistinguishable from her own except by its point of issue, enacts the rhythm of the chair that rocks her off to death. In the English version one is conscious of the simplicity yet ambiguity of the language, in homonyms like eye/I, pane/pain, blind/blind; in instabilities of pronouns and subject attribution. With the French the materiality of sound and its performative effects move to the foreground, intensifying the lulling rhythm. This is repetition with a difference, though: not a return to the beginning but a new start of strangeness and abstraction, showing us death as an enactment open to repetition.

Both plays turn on this compulsion to repeat, of course. After an interval, the mechanical rocking controlling body and voice in the first play is replaced by a walk of light visualising the sound of dragging feet: a sequence of lights switched on and off along a narrow strip of floor mark the progress of a human body. For the first two scenes there is no body on stage, except in a glimpse; when it does appear, the embodied presence is doubly strong – not just because a figure now fills the empty space, more because of the felt effort with which this aged woman shuffles, drags and turns. Every move is made by the support of a stick, each ‘wheel’ a painful manoeuvre to prevent the stick from being caught in the tattered train of her old dress. The effect is corporeal, breath-stopping. At the same time the woman’s face is expressive, the voice insistent, the gaze turned out at the audience in a performative register that has brought us from the abstraction of the death mask to expressiveness on a much larger scale, from formalist reticence to an acutely felt reality. What we see and hear is an inversion of entropy: thematic doublings and echoes abound, tensions increase in the relationship between mother and daughter, the pressing actuality of the situation before us becomes strikingly apparent. At the end of the three plays, more than anything it is the body’s expressive presence that brings home the underlying ‘realism’ of Beckett’s late drama in all its disturbing urgency.

Rosemary Pountney in Bergen

Erik Tonning (University of Bergen)

Rosemary Pountney, who has been performing Beckett shorts ever since her acclaimed Not I at the Oxford Playhouse in 1976, brought her performance of Rockaby/Berceuse and Footfalls to the prestigious venue of Den Nationale Scene in Bergen, Norway – one of the country’s three national theatre institutions, which was once under the directorship of Henrik Ibsen.

Dr Pountney (author of Theatre of Shadows) was invited to perform in Bergen via an unique collaboration between the theatre and the University. Although she has performed these plays many times in the past, her approach in Bergen, assisted by director Tore Nysæther, was entirely fresh. The four sections of Rockaby were followed directly by a compelling encore, the last sequence of the French Berceuse. In Footfalls, Pountney played both mother and daughter, literalising Beckett’s instruction ‘voices as alike as possible’. Nonetheless they were expertly differentiated in a sound recording of the voices and footsteps in Scenes 1 and 2. The first two scenes were played without a human figure. Instead, a light moved steadily across the strip of stage, precisely synchronised with the sound of dragging footsteps and V’s voice counting them. In the post-show discussions, it was clear that the spectral, mystery-laden atmosphere this created had made a strong impression on audiences, as had the contrast between the steady progress of the light and the slow, pained movement of Scene 3, which Pountney performed (of necessity) using a walking stick. With the kind permission of Edward Beckett, her performance movingly demonstrated that chief Beckettian quality: making and remaking, playing with shadows.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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